The Chula Vista City Council
A meeting of the Chula Vista City Council / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Chula Vista spent thousands of dollars last year to investigate a complaint filed by Councilman John McCann against Mayor Mary Casillas Salas to consider whether the use of the word “gringo” violated the city’s equal employment opportunity policy. McCann’s complaint accused the mayor of discrimination and harassment.

“Mayor Casillas Salas insulted me by calling me a racial slur ‘Gringo’ twice,” McCann wrote in the Feb. 19 complaint. “I felt shocked by her statement since it was aimed at diminishing me because of my ethnicity and race.” 

Months later, an outside attorney for the city concluded that while “gringo” is an inappropriate term to use in the workplace, it didn’t rise to the level of being harassment or discrimination in this case.  

The total cost of the inquiry: $15,838.50.  

The incident occurred after a city press conference on Feb. 10, 2021. The event marked the completion of the Third Avenue Renovation Project at El Cruce+241, a restaurant.  

McCann, who is White, filed his complaint the following week with Courtney Chase, director of human resources for the city. He requested that an outside party complete the investigation against Salas, who is Latina. The investigation was conducted by Arlene Prater from the law firm Best, Best and Krieger. She interviewed McCann and Salas and found both to be credible and truthful, with insignificant differences in their version of events.

On his way out of the restaurant, McCann had stopped by the table where Salas and Councilwoman Jill Galvez were eating, according to the investigation. 

“Councilmember McCann stated words to the effect of his ‘not being able to eat spicy food,’” Prater wrote in the report, “and in response Mayor Salas stated words to the effect of his not being able to eat spicy food because he is a ‘Gringo’.” 

While the term offended McCann, as it translates to “foreigner” and a non-Latino person, Salas told Prater she had used it in a light-hearted conversation between two long-time colleagues and that it was in reference to the restaurant’s food.  

“He has the audacity to file an absolutely ridiculous complaint taking taxpayer resources away from public safety,” said Galvez in an interview. “It’s an abuse of power. It’s a breach of public trust and I’m embarrassed for our city.” 

McCann said he felt the mayor’s behavior warranted the investigation, and justified the costs, and the city agreed with him.  

Galvez does not. 

“It was retaliation. Pure and simple,” she said. “Because the mayor has rightfully questioned a lot of the abuses and breach of public trust and violations of the law that Councilmember McCann has engaged in.” 

In her analysis, Prater considered both state and local laws and whether the term altered McCann’s working conditions and made his job more difficult. She decided that it hadn’t.  

“Here the use of the word ‘Gringo’ on one occasion in this informal setting and to describe a person’s attribute of not being able to eat spicy food does not rise to the level of unreasonably interfering with someone’s performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive environment, as required to find a violation of law,” she wrote. 

Salas was unavailable for comment.  

In an interview, McCann insisted that the term was intended to make him feel unwelcomed but thought the investigation had been fair. He said they can now move on and focus on city business. 

This isn’t the first time McCann has been at the center of a complaint involving his fellow elected officials. Shortly after Prater completed her report, several of the Councilmembers, including Salas, made an accusation against him for misuse of public funds.  

In 2020, McCann used public funds to distribute about 200 gift bags to senior residents at Congregational Tower. Among the items were face masks, hand sanitizer and a list of phone numbers for public agencies that included McCann’s photo and slogan on the page. 

Councilmembers Stephen Padilla and Galvez, along with Salas, all Democrats, saw it as a political stunt to raise name recognition in the upcoming mayoral race.  

McCann said he was simply trying to help seniors during the pandemic. Salas directed her chief of staff to file a complaint with the California Fair Political Practice Commission against McCann for using taxpayer money to boost a campaign. 

Salas told Voice of San Diego in July 2021 that McCann, a Republican, had the advantage of incumbency in 2022. Both are termed out of their current positions at the end of this year, but McCann still can run for mayor.  

McCann and Galvez are expected to run for mayor in the upcoming election. 

Galvez accused McCann at a City Council meeting in June 2021 of using an email list she mistakenly leaked the year before to constituents who were not his and wished them a happy birthday. She said there was no other reason why her relatives who lived out of the state were receiving emails from McCann. Salas said her granddaughter also received an email, during the meeting. 

McCann denied the accusation and said people could simply unsubscribe if they didn’t like it. 

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